By Amanda Witwer, UNC-Chapel Hill Public Policy Student

Apart from being an avid reader and a devoted Tarheel fan, my pen pal is an inmate who has spent the last nineteen years of his life on North Carolina’s death row. Out of respect for his privacy, I will refer to him with a pseudonym.

Tom* does his best to stay busy. In addition to attending weekly writing classes, he shoots hoops with his fellow inmates, leads Toastmasters club meetings and attends prayer services. But, try as he might, Tom cannot escape from the crushing uncertainty that rules his life and death. He could be executed in a week, or a month, or a decade. Neither he nor his family has any way of knowing.
The sad truth is that most prisoners executed in the U.S. spend over a decade on death row. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals who were executed in 2013 sat on death row for an average of fifteen and a half years.
The men and women currently on North Carolina’s death row have spent an average of eighteen years and eleven months awaiting their own executions and that agonizing wait stretches on year by year. Next month, Wayne Laws – the longest serving death row inmate in North Carolina’s history – will have spent a total of thirty-two years behind bars. Death row prisoners in our state are spending so long on death row, that some are passing away while waiting to be executed. Since 2006, twelve death row prisoners have died of natural causes.
Prolonged waits on death row may not be unusual in the U.S., but they are widely regarded as cruel. International human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, held that the psychological distress and anxiety caused by protracted periods in isolating death row conditions amount to torture (See cases 11.765, 11.815, and 12.275).
High courts in Canada and the European Union have refused to extradite individuals charged with capital murder in the U.S., not just out of opposition to the death penalty, but also on the grounds that the long wait the individual would face on death row would constitute “inhumane and degrading” treatment.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue, several Justices have expressed doubt about the constitutionality of lengthy delays in capital punishment. In his dissent to Lackey v. Texas, former Justice John Stevens implied that a thirty-two year-long stay on death row – roughly the amount of time Wayne Laws has been on death row – was a violation of the Constitution. Dissenting to the 2015 case Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer asserted that, “excessive delays from sentencing to execution can themselves ‘constitute cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’.”
That Tom spends every waking moment in the shadow of death is nothing short of cruel. Subjecting those sentenced to death in North Carolina to decades of agonizing uncertainty in the confines of death row is a violation of our state’s values and principles and constitutes yet another reason why we should close the book on capital punishment once and for all.